Announcing our forthcoming catalogue, Books on the Run!

On the eve of this year’s Banned Books Week (22-28 September 2019) we are pleased to announce the forthcoming release of our catalogue Books on the Run, a selection of early books which, in different ways, were all involved with censorship, either during the lifetime of their authors, or posthumously.

Censorship is a complex, multi-sided phenomenon. The aim of this catalogue is thus only to sketch a panorama of the multifarious paths that develop from censorship and its attempted avoidance by focusing on the Italian peninsula, where the control of printing and reading was institutionalised and enforced already in the Cinquecento as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation and subsequent spread of printed propaganda against the Catholic Church. The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, also known as the Holy Office, and the Congregation of the Index were established in 1542 and 1573, respectively; meanwhile, the first edition of the Index librorum prohibitorum, i.e., the Index of forbidden books, was issued in Rome in 1559, thereby initiating the long history of the Roman Index, the last edition of which was published in 1948. Although originally dedicated exclusively to stamping out heretical and/or impious texts, over time these censorship institutions extended their control to literary, political, and historical works, among others. The Index therefore contained not only lengthy lists of authors originating from Protestant countries, but also several Italian names, including those of theologians, philosophers, scientists, historians, politicians, novelists, and poets. 

From 1559 onwards, a long series of authors and works were banned from Italian printing presses, bookshops, institutional libraries, and private collections, and could be printed, sold, bought, owned, and read only outside of Italy’s borders. Books by the outstanding Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had masterfully edited so many Greek and Latin authors for his friend Aldus Manutius, thus suddenly and sadly disappeared from stocks, bookshelves, and writing desks, while popular comedies, chivalric literature, love poetry and novels were deemed greatly suspicious as potential agents of moral corruption and thus frequently forbidden. This is to say nothing of Boccaccio, the author of such an indecent work as the Decameron; the perfidious Florentine Secretary Niccolò Machiavelli; the heretic and restless philosopher Giordano Bruno; the scientist Galileo Galilei and his demonstration of the validity of Copernican astronomy; and all representatives of Enlightenment and other such dangerous intellectual movements.

While censorship authorities took all possible measures to prevent the circulation of heretical, impious, lascivious, immoral, or simply groundbreaking texts, their work was countered by authors, printers, and booksellers who used all possible strategies for avoiding their punitive measures, which ranged from the confiscation of books and blacklisting (of books or people outright) in the Index, to imprisonment or even more fatal sentencing, as in the case of Bruno, who was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. In the face of such potential danger, authors attempted to hide their identity by remaining anonymous or employing pen-names, resorted to self-censorship or dissimulation, or used their contacts in the Protestant world to print their works abroad. The (often Venetian) printers masked the imprint indicated on the title-pages of books issued from their presses, while adventurous booksellers clandestinely sold volumes north of the Alps. Many of them, however, chose the path of exile, such that the dissemination of the ideas of several Italian authors came to uniquely rely upon the transalpine publication and circulation of their books.

Censorship is not only highly complex and multi-faceted, but it is also, unfortunately, a dateless phenomenon, an issue which we as booksellers observe with special concern. This catalogue is therefore dedicated to all the authors and books which, in several regions of the world, are still on the run. To this end, we invite you to visit the American Library Association’s Top 11 Most Challenged Books of 2018 as well as Amnesty International’s focus cases of 2019.


Books on the Run will be released Wednesday, September 25, 2019.

Margherita Palumbo